Notes on cinematography and the ‘Amélie ’ cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who will be honoured at Cannes

Posted on May 2, 2019


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The focus at film festivals is typically so director- and actor-centric that technicians almost become an afterthought. That’s why it’s important to highlight the Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography honour at the Cannes Film Festival, named after the French engineer and innovator. (Today’s zoom lenses use the principle developed by Angénieux in the 1950s.) This year’s honoree is Bruno Delbonnel, who shot to fame and Oscar-nominated glory with Amélie and, in a very short span, bagged four more Academy Award nominations for Cinematography (A Very Long Engagement, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inside Llewyn Davis, Darkest Hour). But before we talk about Delbonnel, let’s note the Indian connection to the Angénieux honour, which also seeks to highlight the work of a promising young professional. This year, it’s Kolkata-based Modhura Palit, who becomes the first Indian (and first Indian woman) to receive this recognition.

Delbonnel is one of those cinematographers whose work you instantly recognise. It’s not that others don’t give us the soft, diffused frames and very sharp colour palettes we associate with Delbonnel. It’s more that this “look” has become so distinctive in Delbonnel’s films that even when we see it elsewhere, we say “the lighting is Delbonnel-esque”. The “look” is a complicated thing to pin down on one person. Take Vilmos Zsigmond’s signature “look”, realism with a metallic sheen. He achieved this result by exposing the raw stock to light before using it in the camera during the shoot, but the technique was actually pioneered by Freddie Young, who was David’s Lean’s cinematographer on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter. Young developed this “colorless color” technique for Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair (1966) — but have you heard of the film? Now, look at Zsigmond’s filmography: McCabe and Mrs Miller, Deliverance, the Oscar-winning Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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